While the world focuses on looming crises in Iran and North Korea, a civil war many had thought resolved is heating up again in Colombia as a peace deal supposedly concluded with leftist rebels a year ago collapses on the eve of important national elections.
In a region already contending with the political and economic implosion in Venezuela, the renewed fighting in Colombia threatens to spill over the border and introduce a major new element of instability.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better know as the FARC, was Latin America’s biggest guerrilla organization when it agreed to demobilize in 2016, ending a half-century of civil war. Under the accord, which was sharply criticized by conservative parties, some 7,000 FARC fighters turned in their rifles and sidearms in return for immunity from prosecution, guaranteed representation in the national parliament, jobs in the bureaucracy and other benefits.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for sealing the deal and fiercely defends his handiwork. He recently told Euronews TV that the peace process was working.
President Trump endorsed Mr. Santos’ efforts when the Colombian president visited Washington last year but expressed concerns about drug cultivation and trafficking. Critics say the levels have increased since the peace deal was signed.
Bogota has been forced to deploy thousands of troops in recent weeks to contain cascading outbreaks of violence by rogue guerrilla units and other groups fighting for control of vastly expanded cocaine-producing areas. The militants have attacked police stations, ambushed patrols, intimidated local populations and killed journalists.
The perilous state of the peace agreement and the rising tide of violence and drug production will weigh heavily on the presidential election scheduled for May 27, analysts say. A tight three-way race is developing among two conservative candidates, Vice President German Lleras and Sen. Ivan Duque, and leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogota mayor who belonged to the M-19 guerrilla movement in the 1980s and was an economic adviser to Venezuela’s anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez.
Mr. Duque, a 41-year-old lawyer with little political experience, has held a steady lead in the polls, boosted by the endorsement of former President and peace deal critic Alvaro Uribe. Mr. Petro is said to be gaining support but has not closed the gap.
Invested in the deal
With so much invested in the success of the peace deal, Santos administration officials are reluctant to blame FARC for the renewed fighting.
Camilo Restrepo, the chief government representative in negotiations with the guerrillas, compared the situation in an interview with Reuters to a “devil’s caldron, where all kinds of criminal ingredients are being boiled.”
According to the government, the spike in violence reflects the movement of rival criminal gangs into territory abandoned by FARC.
Mr. Santos insists that the peace process is holding, and Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, the onetime guerrilla fighter who now heads the FARC’s civilian organization, has called on his followers to respect the accord.
But defense representatives said some 9,000 troops have been dispatched to Colombia’s southwestern province of Narino, where more than 1,000 FARC fighters are regrouping along the Pacific coast — one of the main cocaine shipping routes to Mexico and the U.S.
Calling themselves the United Guerrillas of the Pacific and led by former FARC field commander Walter Arizala, the militants say they never accepted the 2016 deal and that it was a betrayal. Mr. Arizala, known as “Guacho,” was recently joined in Narino by Gentil Duarte, a member of FARC’s secretariat who participated in the peace negotiations but now denounces it as a trap.
Guerrilla activity is spilling into Ecuador, where militants recently assassinated a pair of journalists who were investigating Mr. Arizala’s links to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and the threat he posed to government installations.
Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno sent troops to seal the border with Colombia last week.
Mr. Moreno also has suspended permission to the Colombian government to conduct peace talks in Ecuador with a smaller leftist guerrilla group known as the ELN, which has also been stepping up attacks. The ELN’s ranks have been swelled by “demobilized” FARC fighters, an ELN leader identified as Commander Yerson told Reuters.
Officials in Panama have also complained about growing FARC activity along their shared border, where drug shipments and money laundering are on the rise, government spokespeople said.
The latest escalation of violence may have been triggered by the April 10 arrest of a high-level member of FARC’s secretariat, Jesus Santich, accused of conspiring to smuggle 10 tons of cocaine into the U.S. with the Sinaloa Cartel.
Mr. Santich had a high profile during the lengthy peace negotiations with the Santos government in Cuba. He gave press conferences and participated in elaborate signing ceremonies with Mr. Santos that were witnessed by such figures as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
“Santich may have neglected to read the fine print of the accord,” which doesn’t pardon crimes committed after it has been signed, said a Colombian legal analyst who worked with the government negotiating team.
Mr. Santich was arrested with Marion Marin, the nephew of another top FARC leader, Ivan Marquez, whose role in the closing stages of the peace negotiations was so vital that the Venezuelan government airlifted him from his base in Venezuela, in a craft escorted by Sukhoi jet fighters, for a meeting with Mr. Santos in Cuba, according to Colombia’s weekly newsmagazine Semana.
When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed Mr. Marin under witness protection and flew him to the U.S. late last month, Mr. Marquez renounced his recently acquired Senate seat and fled to a FARC jungle hideout in Caqueta to join another active guerrilla unit. He released a joint statement with the local commander nicknamed “El Paisa” declaring that the peace process was dead.
“The deal in Havana failed to recognize narcotrafficking as the primary security concern, demoting it to a secondary issue in the rush to get it signed,” said Jose Marulanda, a Colombian military intelligence officer and international security consultant.
Coca production rises
Although the FARC relied heavily on drug money to fund its operation during its decades in the jungle, cocaine production has skyrocketed since the start of the peace process. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that production has risen 50 percent since peace talks began in 2013 and reached record levels of almost 1,000 tons in 2016.
A 2015 DEA report blamed the massive increase in coca cultivation on the government’s curtailment of army patrols in coca-growing areas during the negotiations with FARC. The Colombian government has also suspended aerial eradication.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who was an enthusiastic supporter of the peace talks, was one of a number of U.S. lawmakers who criticized the agreement at a Senate briefing last fall. She suggested withholding appropriations for a $3 billion fund to support implementation of the peace process that the Colombian government negotiated with the State Department.
“I don’t believe for one second that the FARC as I have watched it for 17 years is going to become a peaceful, law-abiding institution,” she said.
William Brownfield, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs who retired last year, told lawmakers at the time that features of the peace deal contributed to the surge in drug production, with the Santos government heavily invested in sustaining the accord.
“Widespread reporting indicates FARC leaders urged coca growers to plant more coca, purportedly motivated by the belief that the Colombian government’s investment in the wake of its agreement with the FARC and subsidies would focus on regions with the greatest quantities of illicit crops,” he told a Senate briefing.
Evan Ellis, a Latin America analyst at the U.S. Army War College, said there are “a lot of powerful stakeholders in the peace deal right now who don’t want it to come totally apart.”
Mr. Marulanda said the type of urban fighting afflicting Brazil’s favelas is starting to break out in some Colombian cities. Three hundred army troops were rushed to Medellin after sustained gunbattles erupted there last week.
*Because of an editing error, Mr. Brownfield’s status was incorrectly stated in the original report. He retired from the post last fall.